Interrogating the feasibility of Conducting Elections during the COVID-19 Era

On Tuesday 2 June 2020, ZESN hosted a ZOOM Public debate on the topic “Interrogating the Feasibility of holding elections in the COVID-19 Era”. The Panel included politicians; Douglas Mwonzora, the Secretary General for the MDC-T and David Coltart, representatives from the civil society, Mr. Andrew Makoni, ZESN Chairperson, and Roselyn Hanzi, the Director for the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights (ZLHR). The Minister of Justice, Legal and Parliamentary Affairs, Hon. Ziyambi Ziyambi who was also part of the panel managed to connect to the meeting for a few minutes but later lost connectivity before he made his contributions and therefore could not participate in the meeting. The debate was largely interactive, steered by renowned Journalist, Violet Gonda and panelists gave presentations and a question and answer session ensued, also involving other participants via the chats platforms on the Facebook livestreaming and the ZOOM.

The discussion centered on the feasibility of holding elections during the COVID-19 Era, and discussed if elections should be held and the necessary conditions needed for the safe conduct of the elections. The meeting further discussed the challenges and opportunities posed by the pandemic on the electoral landscape, the legal implications of postponing elections, the capacity of the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission (ZEC) to conduct elections in this era and the alternative approaches that can be taken to conduct elections.

Panelists acknowledged that the fact that the meeting was being held virtually shows that the situation is no longer normal as is the case globally. It was noted that in Zimbabwe, the COVID-19 situation has led to the postponement of by-elections that were supposed to be conducted in the country starting in April 2020.The dilemma of this situation is that although democratic practices should be followed, there is also the risk of exposing the electorate, electoral officers, party agents and observers to the pandemic. In the words of one of the panelists: “We are damned if we do and we are damned if we don’t.”

Another concern raised by panelists in the meeting was that from a health perspective, it would be unwise to hold elections currently and in the next few months. It was noted that Zimbabwe is currently ill-equipped to deal with the pandemic, with evidence from hospitals and health centres suggesting that there are inadequate resources to contain the virus. The recent spike in the number of cases was also cited as a hindrance to conduct any form of elections in the short term. Therefore, it would be wise to channel the available resources towards the fight against Covid 19 rather than elections.

However, despite the health scare, the meeting acknowledged that whatever response is taken with regards to the situation, it must remain constitutional and within the confines of the law. It was noted that participation in elections is a fundamental right that must only be done away with in very unusual circumstances like the current COVID-19. Stakeholders were also challenged to play a part in ensuring that the current proposed Constitutional Amendments do not water down democratic precepts, as most of them have a bearing on the conduct of elections.

It was observed that COVID-19 is likely to be a long lasting pandemic therefore the country can never be sure when it is going to end. There is therefore need to plan for the conduct of future elections amid Covid 19. For this planning to be successful, there should be mobilization of enough resources to plan for the elections, consultations on how best elections can be safely conducted, robust debates in Parliament and other institutions of democracy.

The responsibility of Parliamentarians during this period was also discussed. It was noted that they should dedicate this time to source and oversee the distribution of resources to fighting the pandemic. The decision by some political parties to boycott Parliament during this critical time was condemned as well. Citizens were urged to take stock of what their Member of Parliament is doing with regard to COVID-19 and to be able to use the courts to bring MPs to account.

On the capacity of ZEC to conduct elections, it was noted that the Commission is not fully resourced hence delivering safe elections may be a struggle as there are increased budgetary implications. Panelists bemoaned the fact that ZEC usually gets its funding very late in the electoral cycle, meaning that it has very little time to successfully plan for elections, which would be disastrous in the era of COVID-19. ZEC was also criticized for not engaging stakeholders regarding their position on the COVID-19. It was noted that on the day of discussion, there was no single update on COVID 19 except for a Twitter statement postponing elections.

Nigeria was cited as a good example of countries implementing measures to plan for elections to be conducted during the pandemic. Nigeria has mainstreamed COVID-19 issues into law, and has initiated the registration of voters online. For countries that have conducted elections already in the COVID era, South Korea was identified as one that managed to successfully employ precautionary measures that did not lead to any spike of COVID-19 cases.

Recommendations proffered for conducting elections during the COVID-19 era included adopting the online registration and voting system, a suggestion which was also criticized because the majority of Zimbabwe’s population (70%) live in rural areas and would certainly face challenges in accessing technology. Another concern raised with that system was the lack of trust in Zimbabwe’s institutions, meaning that forms of manipulation like the hacking of the online system would be very likely. Another suggestion was to fill parliamentary or local government vacancies through replacing the candidates with appointees from the same political party that occupied that seat, in order to avoid going for an election.

In addition, ZESN used this opportunity to inform the meeting about its preparedness to observe elections during this period. The Chairperson of ZESN noted that the network continues to be active in engaging stakeholders throughout the electoral cycle on the best methods that can be used in election observation. He assured participants that ZESN is planning its activities with the COVID-19 pandemic in mind. From the discussions from the panelists and participants, the following recommendations were proffered;

  • All elections in Zimbabwe must be postponed, particularly in the next few months as it is winter and the corona virus is likely to be at its peak during this period. The holding of elections can be resumed in the summer if the situation improves. However, the postponement of the vote must not be indefinite, but there is also need to strike a balance between ensuring the health and safety of all stakeholders and upholding the law. This is the right time to start planning about the pending Delimitation process and the 2023 General elections.
  • Politicians must set aside their differences and concentrate on helping to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • There should be more dialogue between ZEC and electoral stakeholders on alternative methods of conducting elections that will ensure the health and safety for all involved.
  • Because elections do not occur in a vacuum, there is need to reform other institutions that play a role in electoral processes.
  • There is need to institute electoral reforms that will ensure the credibility in elections and electoral processes

The webinar debate generated a lot of interest from the public and was attended by 88 participants on ZOOM and reached 4188 people on Facebook and over 450 engagements. It is ZESN’s hope that some of the issues and recommendations made will be further discussed and implemented by the relevant stakeholders in order to ensure safe and democratic elections during this period of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source: Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN)